The Phased Approach to Implementation

Over the past 11 years I have, as a consultant and project manager, implemented and managed many  IAM solutions. These projects have varied from very small to enterprise-level solutions. This experience has given me quite an insight into how businesses operate, how to gauge customer expectations, and even how to anticipate some requirements before they are provided.

One important thing I’ve picked up along the way, however, is the ability to recognize the need for phases within implementation projects.

Phasing is not necessary for every project, of course, and teaching our consultants how to determine when phases are required is one of the keys to successful implementations. With the ever-changing technologies used in organizations, the need for a phased approach is on the rise. These technologies themselves often dictate the need for project phases and how many.

A phased approach has many advantages, one being the project timeline. While an “all-at-once” effort may require a shorter timeline in theory, it commonly leads to issues that are realized only too late. Often a project is rushed due to timeline constraints and the players involved simply charge forward to reach completion. This will result in missing requirements as well as a lack of proper testing and tweaking—which results in a lackluster outcome.

Using phases can help avoid this wasted effort. If time is spent qualifying requirements up-front, everyone involved will be able to plan and schedule the project efficiently. Both the vendor and the client’s personnel can be scheduled and deployed as needed, depending on the project phase requirements. In-between phases, project managers retain far more flexibility to make any adjustments from the initial rollout plan.

The ‘sink or swim’ approach can be quite overwhelming on all parties involved and leaves them with little time to adjust to change. Incremental change in phases mitigates these teething problems.

An example of a successful phased implementation can be seen in the DeKalb County School Disctrict Case Study.

Additionally, this method promotes quality work due to the nature of phasing itself, which breaks the project into smaller components to be produced and reviewed. On the vendor’s side, project managers have more quality control oversight to ensure their personnel is meeting the expectations for each phase. The vendor’s project manager can review the completed phase with the client to ensure reality matches expectations.

Over time, this phase review process contributes toward a sort of “living” scope of work under continual verification. The client’s needs or expectations may undergo some change and each new phase can adapt to stay aligned. With “big bang” approaches, any small deviation between expectations and results will likely be amplified over a project’s timeline.

Working with the customer through phases instills confidence in the project, the personnel assigned to it, and the company providing the solution. As the project proceeds through phases and their associated deliverables, the customer is provided transparency they are not otherwise afforded. Adaptation to real-world process issues or new, sudden requirements is much easier.

Even if a phase needs reworking or minor adjustments, it’s the difference in scaling back from 70% to 65% instead of 90% to 30%. This improves the ease of implementation and creates strong relationships between the solution provider and customer.

Phased Implementations: Customer Benefits

Phased implementations aren’t just for vendors’ benefit, however. A client will favor this approach for many reasons, such as minimizing operational shutdown, easier training and user adoption, and their own project or financial planning.

An “all-at-once” implementation not only may lead to undiscovered issues or misalignment between expectation and deliverables but may require temporarily shutting down operations. If the solution covers a significant portion of the client’s IT infrastructure, they may have to pause activity until systems, applications, and other resources can resume. If a client doesn’t want or can’t afford this temporary shutdown, phased implementations minimize the impact ongoing operations face.

When a major implementation occurs that affects the entire user base, everyone needs new training. With phased implementations, this training can be managed in smaller groups and over each phase, so that users have more time to learn and adjust. Further, user feedback can help optimize each successive round of training and new groups have peers who can assist them in their early adoption stages.

If everyone must “go live” at the same time, training may be rushed and confusion may arise from all users attempting to adapt at the same time. Implementations aren’t solely dependent on a functioning solution. User adoption and buy-in are just as critical. Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and incomplete adoption may threaten an implementation’s success even if the solution functions exactly as intended.

While not necessary for all software implementations, phased approaches benefit the quality of the vendor’s work as well as the customer’s success with the project and its adoption.

What is Phased Implementation? FAQ

  • What is the “phased approach” to implementation?

    As the name suggests, a phased approach to implementation gradually rolls out new or replacement software to end users. The phased approach is one of two ways to implement software solutions, with the other described as the “big bang” method.


    The “big bang” method attempts to implement and roll out software solutions as much and as quickly as possible in hopes of a rapid transition.

  • What are the benefits of a phased implementation approach?

    The primary benefits of a phased approach to implementation are:

    • Better planning, control, and testing in regards to rolling out the solution to end users.
    • Minimal effects on continued operations, as the rest of the organization functions as normal while narrower ranges of teams and departments transition to the new solution.
    • If issues are discovered, they are only present within the isolated areas where the software has gone live compared to being organization-wide.
    • Spreads out implementation costs to allow for easier budgeting and financial planning.

    With a phased implementation, your organization has much more control over the solution’s gradual rollout and project planning. You’re able to choose which departments or teams should first gain access to maximize benefits and minimize transition difficulties. Incremental changes, smaller training groups, and better testing lead to more successful implementations and user adoption.

    Phased implementation also gives your organization greater control of how to plan for the solution’s overall cost and determine what modules to roll out and when.

    When a solution is rolled out all at once, your organization may have to pause significant operations during the implementation and transition. The implementation, testing, and training are more likely to be rushed in order to resume operations. With everything changing and going live at once, any issues have major effects.

  • What are the trade-offs with a phased approach?
    • Implementation takes longer.
    • While they’re spread out, the overall cost of a phased implementation tends to be higher than a (successful) “big bang” method since the process requires more vendor availability and consultancy time.
    • ROI may be delayed until the implementation is in later stages.
    • Legacy systems have to stay operational for a longer transition period.
    • Though incremental, employees must use a system or process that continually changes.
    • Projects may seem “never-ending”.
  • Who should consider a phased implementation approach?

    How do you know if phased implementation may be right for you? Phased implementations are best suited for the organizations that meet the following criteria:

    • Medium to large organizations with diverse departments, lines of business, and service offerings.
    • Your organization covers a large geographic area, resulting in semi-independent departments or operations subject to different compliance and regulatory needs.
    • Your organization must be “risk-averse” due to significant regulations and compliance needs (e.g., healthcare or financial industries).
    • Different user groups will require varied functionality ranging in complexity.
    • The organization wants to spread out implementation.
    • User adoption and “buy-in” struggled on previous implementations and would greatly benefit from seeing the successful solution in action.
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